What's With the U.S. Media's Aversion to Graphic Images?

In an R-rated world, American news remains rigidly PG.

Robert Nickelsberg/Getty; Illustration by Mike McQuade

The trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell presented pro-life activists with a perfect foil: an abortionist accused (and since convicted) of delivering babies alive and then murdering them. He did this for years, killing in a most grisly way while hiding behind euphemism. “He called it ‘ensuring fetal demise,’ ” according to a Philadelphia grand-jury report. “The way he ensured fetal demise was by sticking scissors into the back of the baby’s neck and cutting the spinal cord. He called that ‘snipping.’ ”

Coverage of the case exposed the public to descriptions of “fetal demise” far more graphic than anything normally found in the media. Abortion-rights supporters accurately noted that Gosnell’s clinic was atypical; that he was accused of perpetrating murders, not legal abortions; and that if abortion were illegal, there would be more clinics like his, not fewer. Yet many who read about the clinic couldn’t help but notice that, compared with the cases of straightforward infanticide, the legal late-term abortions performed there seemed no less brutal for the fact that limbs were dismembered and spines were severed inside the womb or birth canal rather than on the operating table. Pro-lifers hoped that the amputated feet Gosnell inexplicably saved in jars would increase awareness that late-term abortions kill almost fully formed babies with all the attendant parts, not amorphous clumps of undeveloped cells. The activist Lila Rose summed up this perspective, telling the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, “I think we’ve forgotten what abortion really is.”

Members of the pro-life movement have long believed that they can win converts by confronting Americans with “what abortion really is,” in the most-graphic terms possible—hence the images of aborted fetuses on protest placards. They also believe the press has a widespread pro-choice bias that leads it to sanitize abortion coverage. I understand their desire for more explicit imagery—when it comes to the U.S. government’s drone strikes, a subject I write about frequently, I have often wondered whether the ranks of critics might swell if more Americans saw graphic photos of the results: the charred corpses, the severed arms and legs, the bloodied children. But pro-life activists shouldn’t assume that the media’s antiseptic coverage of abortion springs from pro-choice bias. The fact is, the American media sanitize almost all death. During the Iraq War, an American could watch hours of TV coverage without ever seeing the dead body of a U.S. soldier.

The American press was not always so squeamish. A number of studies suggest that the media have grown less likely to publish explicitly violent images in recent decades, even as fictional portrayals of violence in film and video games have intensified. The retreat from graphic photography seems partly the result of increased timidity about offending the audience: Overall, Americans say that they disapprove of the dissemination of graphic war images. And because consumers do not want grisly images, neither do advertisers. Then, too, certain kinds of images are legitimately hard for the press to come by these days, as the military has clamped down on access to combat scenes.

Other countries’ media do not contrive such a bloodless world. Al Jazeera’s audience quite reasonably expects gore and dead bodies to be part of war coverage, and holds the Qatar-based network in high esteem for broadcasting such images, according to the University of Arizona associate professor Shahira Fahmy. (As one Egyptian American viewer of the network put it to the Columbia Journalism Review in 2003, “I watch CNN—nobody gets killed. I watch al-Jazeera—it’s like a tragedy.”) And the discrepancy is not limited to the Arab world. According to Fahmy’s literature review, scholars agree that foreign media in general are more willing to show graphic images.

America’s comparatively squeamish approach is not without moral logic. In her 2003 book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag argued that the dissemination of graphic images might backfire. Rather than shocking people of conscience into action, such photos might give rise to “opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” Many years earlier, in one of the essays included in her book On Photography, Sontag had expressed a related worry: that graphic images inure us to horror. “In these last decades,” she wrote, “ ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.” A separate, largely opposite, critique holds that graphic imagery—“war porn” or “disaster porn,” in this telling—titillates and excites our darkest selves. Then there is concern for the subjects of such imagery. In his review of A Survivor From Warsaw, Arnold Schoenberg’s 1947 orchestral tribute to Holocaust victims, Theodor Adorno grappled with that ethical conundrum. “The victims are turned into works of art, tossed out to be gobbled up by the world that did them in,” he worried.

The critics are right about at least one thing: graphic images aren’t enough to stop violent killings. Despite a century of war photographs, war is still with us. (Nor have graphic images of abortion stopped its spread.) Photography from war zones is, nevertheless, the type of journalism that most frequently succeeds in transmitting extremely graphic material to the American public. And to varying degrees, that material does have an impact on public thinking. There is little doubt that disturbing images of the Vietnam War—the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc setting himself on fire in Saigon in 1963; the execution of a Vietcong prisoner in 1968; the 1972 image of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack—helped shape public opinion. More recently, photos of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison shocked the national conscience and brought prisoner abuse to the forefront of public debate. In a survey that Fahmy, the University of Arizona professor, conducted in late 2001, the more 9/11 corpses a subject recalled seeing images of, the greater that person’s concern about terrorism. A similar study of the Arab world, conducted in 2001 by Mohammad Ayish, a professor in the United Arab Emirates, found that exposure to images of human suffering was correlated with increased support for the Palestinian cause and opposition to economic sanctions against Iraq.

Images in media determine not just what we see but how journalists describe the world, and thus what we know about it and how we talk about it. Photographs may be sanitized because we’re reluctant to confront unvarnished reality, but sanitized images make it easier, in turn, to accept bloodless language. I am often struck by how the U.S. government’s so-called targeted killing is cloaked in euphemism (“collateral damage”). I don’t know for certain that opposition to drone warfare would swell if only more Americans saw graphic photos of the damage done by our drones. But I strongly suspect that it would be harder to think, write, or be quoted speaking euphemistically of “collateral damage” if an article or bit of TV footage included the image of a bloody corpse. In much the same way, it is difficult to discuss “fetal demise” abstractly when the accompanying images show the little arms and legs that were dismembered.

Whether the subject is war, abortion, or car accidents, the case for publishing graphic images of killing has less to do with the merits of a specific policy view than with photography’s power to keep us from evading a subject entirely. Susie Linfield, the director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University, put it well in The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. “Try to imagine,” she writes, “if only for a moment, what your intellectual, political, and ethical world would be like if you had never seen a photograph.”